The Wisdom of Sadness as Thanksgiving

An article crosses my sightline (as it were) proclaiming gratitude is the key to human happiness.

The trouble with this proposition is of course the word “key” since it suggests a host of fantasies about contentment or well being, the most principle being that it has a physical location, something like a bank vault. You can find your own sub-rosa fantasies. Phallic, capitalistic, old or new testament.

This morning as I work on my second cup of coffee I see gratitude is a rum game—part of the self-help pop psychology mantle of Puritan saccharine ash that fell over America long before the United States existed. Gratitude in the American sense has always meant, “we’re grateful to not be savages” and therefore it’s no more complex than the football player thanking God on TV for letting him score the winning touchdown. We’re grateful we’re not losers.

Oprah, Dr. Phil, their televised progeny—all tabloid psychologists say we should not be losers.

Being a loser means letting others dictate the terms of your quest for joy, dignity, autonomy, truth, etc. So in addition to finding the key, you’re supposed to be independent, like an American cowboy once you’ve found it.

As the poet Robert Bly pointed out in his book The Sibling Society, Americans now have the emotional lives of 11 year olds and the media does everything to assure no one ever grows up. Aging in true psychological terms means admitting sadness, even welcoming it. Pablo Neruda put it this way:

give me 

your black wing,

sister sadness:

I need the sapphire to be 

extinguished sometimes and the oblique

mesh of the rain to fall,

the weeping of the earth…


In this way I shall be grateful for sadness.

I will walk in the new snow grieving for refugees across the globe.

I will remember on Thanksgiving my Native American brothers and sisters, my Latino friends, my black pals, my crippled posse, the liberated, sexually free people I love, all of whom struggle daily just to survive in the neo-Puritan coal mine that “is” America.

Grateful for ambiguities, nuance, depth psychology, post-Colonial verities, the thirst for justice.

Grateful to know what side I stand on.

Grateful to have so many many richly diverse and beautiful people in my patchwork tribe of adults.

Grateful to the animals who allow me into their worlds.

But I shall be grateful for the wisdom of sadness.

Disabling the Academy


I am reposting this from a year ago. It remains true.

Originally posted on Planet of the Blind:

Each day the university disables itself. Note, the university does not “crip” itself. Systematic conceptual alienation requires a ruling class. And no irony please.

Let those with disabilitieswho labor in higher education not acidulate the drink. Thomas Paine wrote:“Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

The disabled university is ubiquitous. I’ve traveled to hundreds of schools. Here are the things I’ve seen (and recently):

Segregation of disability. “Specialized” offices of disability services where the tainted students must appear like scofflaws. (The environment matters: at the University of Iowa the disability services center is in the basement of a dormitory. If it’s hard to find maybe people won’t use it. Oh. There’s no way out from the basement in case of a fire. Hmm. Let’s have a seven year…

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A Blind Poetics

I set out to stand on poetry, like the aerialist who walks on a wing. I saw others had done it. James Wright and Li Po, Emily Dickinson sometimes, when the light was right. I learned you could walk the thinnest ledge provided the light was right. Poetry could be thread. Of course. It was always nothing more than thread. Penelope was Homer. Of course. (In ancient times the blind were known as weavers…) And so I walked on delicate strings, navigating on guttural sounds and stertorous breaths. Poetry and your feet. The lungs in between.


Small wonder I can walk in the dark. Small wonder I can walk with a dog who watches for me.

It is all just poetry on a flimsy wing. And the heart like a bird in a granary. But high up, eyelashes transmitting bone thoughts, you are someone at last. Not the reader of magazines. Not the telephone talker. You are the riff of gravity which is not diagrammable but is a living curve of joy.


Now I’m old. Still on the wing. Learned how to fly long ago.

Compared to me the wind is sad.

I Don’t Want to Buy the World a Coke

People dying for all the usual reasons: God, real estate, and wantonness. But since the Spanish American War, the United States has injected its own brand of imperial blundering into region after region. If you look to history for confirmation of US colonialism as a stabilizing influence you will not find it. I’ve often thought that instead of chanting for world peace Americans who care should be chanting for regional stability—it sounds less dreamy, and in truth it would be a slap at the CIA. Our entire foreign policy is based on inflammation.

I don’t want to buy the world a Coke. I’d prefer to give it Advil.

Meantime I think of the possible newly disabled…violence creates them…

Disability can be found everywhere in history once you learn to look for it. President Lincoln’s depression lead him to abandon the White House for several days. When he returned he unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation to his startled cabinet.

Lincoln’s moodiness allowed him to reflect on the value of life and on what was right. That’s Lincoln’s story. Not all who are bi-polar have the moral qualities of Lincoln. And not all depressed people ask themselves what the nature of suffering can teach them. Yet after a certain age one finds this caste of mind is important. What does it mean to feel my heart is ripped out and is now under my shoe? The proper tears, those mixed with luck, tell us to walk for a time because weeping can be a map. Maps, all maps, are born of agonies. One sees disability wisdoms are not often or probable in textbooks. Look for the stains at the paper’s edges.

As a poet I like the margins.

There are so many minutes for which no proper names exist. Deep in the night I carved my name on a seed. Now I’ve awakened outside the broken temple.

Mr. Lincoln I am sad this morning.

I’m thinking of these lines by Cesar Vallejo, the great Peruvian poet:

“There are blows in life so violent—I can’t answer!

Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if before them,

the deep waters of everything lived through

were backed up in the soul … I can’t answer!”

(translated by Robert Bly)

Oh I can’t answer but I’m searching the corrugated quick of the page.

Mr. Lincoln…


Disability, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Corn Flakes

I think of Ludwig Wittgenstein some mornings. Isn’t that odd? He occurs to me very early.

Usually it’s this quote that pops into my waking noggin:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”

Oh I like this for lots of reasons. As a visually limited man I admire the temerity of the utterance, insofar as all humans have some kind of visual limitation. Wittgenstein posits the power of imagination to declare anything, and then, with a smear of logic, to cement an idea into consciousness. I suspect this is how he survived the trenches in WW I. And I know for certain its how the disabled survive. Look at the nouns:

Death. Event. Life. Experience. Eternity. Duration.

In my sophomore year of college I was fascinated by Boolean algebra. In mathematical logic, Boolean algebra is the “branch of algebra in which the values of the variables are the truth values true and false, usually denoted 1 and 0 respectively.” (See Wikipedia.)

The quote above is pure Boolean logic. One may easily draw a Boolean equation for the proposition eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Then there’s a leap—Wittgenstein says our visual field has no limits.

If eternity = timelessness then the present (time) also equals timelessness. Good.

If timelessness is related to mindfulness (we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration) then the operations of mind become our vision. Hence our visual field (anyone’s) has no limit.

You can see where the poet in me would like this. You can see where the blind person in me also admires it.

As logic it is unimpeachable. The trick is to live it.

Early. Wittgenstein for breakfast.


The Political Correctness Piñata vs. Safe Space in Higher Education

Presently, in these discommodious times, when citizenship is difficult if not impossible to achieve if you’re a colored person or trans or say, just plain blind (for that is my alterity) one principle rhetoric of demand is to call for “safe spaces” especially on college campuses. Students everywhere from Yale to the University of Missouri to Syracuse U (where I teach) are demanding agora free from racism, ableism, homophobia, and fear. It is predictable that these demands by students and staff who are fed up with second class citizenship, who believe in Jeffersonian hope—who expect the pursuit of happiness within higher education to be more advanced and inclusive—should be met with countervailing hostilities.

The usual suspects (The National Review, Fox, et. al.) are dragging out the piñatas of “political correctness” which always look a little like John Foster Dulles and Anita Bryant though they’ve been patched and can still be pointed aloft. “Political correctness” is simply (was always) “newspeak” from the right. It always meant, sneeringly, the forced elimination of awkward ideas, according to its first adopters, as if calling people the “N” word or denying the dignity of women are defensible political positions. And that of course is the problem: for the angry and shrinking white population that feeds the narrative maw of our public discourse (their anger plays well in a louche and deterministic cash crop media) the right to call someone by a slur is equal to, if not superior to, my right to live free from prejudice. One forgets that minority students at the University of Missouri have endured name calling from students passing in trucks, offenses in public spaces, and systemic inattention from the administration. One forgets that Yale students of color have always felt like third rate citizens—hell, there’s even a college in New Haven named for a slave holder.

Calling the demand for “safe space” a matter of political correctness run amok, or a kind of coddling is easy. It’s also reactionary and deflective. And there’s the rub: do Americans have the right to utilize hate speech? Of course they do. They also have the right to burn the flag. (At least for now.) They have the right to stand in the middle of college campuses and shout ugly religious ideas. We own these rights. So where does safe space start? What does it actually mean? If a university is a place where free expression is expected, than shouldn’t whatever is the opposite of safe space be countenanced? Of course it should, shouldn’t it? (The Dulles piñata drifts in the wind…)

I disagree. Think of a laboratory. In this imaginary lab we are growing retinal tissue gathered from mice. Our goal is to see if we can create new retinas. Some day we hope to cure blindness. This laboratory is a safe space—it’s sterile, quiet, protected from heat, traffic fumes, spit, and dirty shoes. Intellectual space is safe space, which is to say it’s controlled space. We might want to introduce a virus into the mouse lab. We might be searching for a way to make artificial retinas stand up to diseases. We can introduce something unhealthy. But we do so because it’s part of productive learning. Can hurtful words be employed in a classroom? Yes. And they always should. If you want to learn about the Harlem Renaissance you better get used to the “N” word. If you want to read about the history of women’s rights you better be able to withstand writing about sexual violence and a host of oppressions. Discussions in a classroom differ from hurling expletives on the quad. And of course the reason is that the latter is not aimed at knowledge, the former is designed to further our understanding.

When the piñata waving National Review crowd starts to influence the New Yorker (as I think it has) then we have a deflective and ill informed story about what is at stake. Asking for safe space is the same thing as calling for citizenship. It is not political correctness ballooning out of control like some vast tomato attacking Los Angeles.




On Learning to Trust at 38

I remember the first time I understood trusting people was my job. The knowledge came late. I was thirty eight years old. That’s how it is when you’re disabled. Songs come when they come. As a kid I played folk guitar and sang “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song…” Even at 11 I knew it was my tune. G and C chords and my squeaky voice. The blind kid bullied on the playground, was singing alone in his room…No, trust wasn’t high on my list. In high school I’d read Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” where a traveling salesman seduces a crippled girl and steals her wooden leg. I thought the whole world worked that way. And that was not a form of naivety—disability puts you in the way of lots of crappy people. The graduate school professor who said you shouldn’t be in his class because you couldn’t see; the HR director who said they don’t need to help you with an accommodation in the work place. “It takes a worried man…” And then suddenly, trusting people was a new assignment, like planting, let’s see if we can grow asparagus on a mountain top. Let’s see if we can be somebody different.

That was what my decision to get a guide dog was about. I was at a school where dogs and people were working in the trust garden. “So this is the trust place,” I said half aloud. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. I think the premise was Hemingway’s. I got to laughing. My “Death in the Afternoon” heroic manly man moment was upon me and it didn’t involve bull fighting. It was just a matter of belief. Grow some fucking asparagus. Decide to be different. “People can do that,” I thought. Just decide.

Tomorrow I would get a guide dog. I was about to learn its name.